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Senate Dems to give federal commission say over legal immigrant workers

By Laura Litvan
Monday, May 24, 2010; A17

Democrats crafting an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws are bringing a new approach to a long-stalled debate: giving a federal commission some power over the future flow of legal foreign workers.

Senate Democratic leaders are drafting a measure to authorize a commission to recommend levels of employment-based visas and green cards that let immigrants work legally in the United States. The plan would require Congress, in certain cases, to vote when immigrant labor is deemed out of line with demand. Although the commission would have limited influence over the skilled-immigrant market for technology and other industries, it would have a major role in regulating low-skilled foreign labor.

The idea is another example of lawmakers showing a willingness to relinquish decision-making to commissions on issues that include reducing the federal debt, Iraq war policy and curbing Medicare costs.

"It's the ultimate expression for the need for political cover," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

It's also an idea that allows the Democrats, who control Congress, to show support for labor unions championing the proposal. Business groups, however, are concerned the commission would make it more cumbersome to use foreign labor.

"Traditionally, our levels have been set by law, and that's worked for us," said Ralph Hellman, top lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council, which includes Intel and Hewlett-Packard as members. "The commission has a lot of peril in it."

Labor unions say the approach can be flexible enough to satisfy business. Their key goal is a mechanism that helps ensure that use of immigrant labor doesn't rise to levels that hurt U.S. workers, said Ana AvendaƱo, an AFL-CIO official who focuses on immigration policy. "We don't want a detrimental effect on our economy or wages," she said.

Calls for action on immigration-overhaul legislation from Hispanic groups, unions and some lawmakers have increased since passage last month of a measure in Arizona that would require local police to determine the immigration status of anyone suspected of lacking proper documentation. Still, Congress probably won't take up immigration legislation and the commission idea until 2011, after November's elections.

The overhaul measure would secure the U.S.-Mexico border, create a temporary-worker program and forge a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

The commission idea came from Ray Marshall, Labor Secretary under President Jimmy Carter. The United States needs a nonpartisan panel that would use "rigorous" data analysis in its decisions, Marshall said in an interview.

The commission plan emerged in December, when Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.) included it in an immigration bill backed by the House's Hispanic and Progressive caucuses. That bill, stalled in the House, would establish a seven-member commission charged with preventing wage depression and job losses for U.S. workers. It would recommend to Congress and the president annual caps on all worker visas. Congress would have to act to prevent the limits from taking effect.

Legislation being drafted by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to take a different tack, said a Schumer aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The panel they envision would have a stronger role in deciding immigrant-worker levels in lower-skilled occupations -- such as hotel and restaurant jobs -- than in higher-skilled ones.

The commission would issue recommendations for high-skilled worker visas and wage levels, the aide said. For lower-skilled occupations, the commission could declare "emergencies" when it sees an imbalance between foreign-worker supply and demand. A vote in Congress would be required for the panel's recommended immigration levels for these workers.

Employers or industries that hire lower-skilled immigrants could petition the commission for temporary waivers of visa caps, although the commission would first need to determine that it wouldn't be possible to hire U.S. workers for the jobs.

Shawn McBurney, a lobbyist with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said resorts and hotel chains that rely on seasonal workers probably couldn't get commission approval to hire more foreign workers in a timely manner.

"There's a lot of things a commission really can't do in real time," said McBurney, whose group lobbies for companies such as Best Western International.

Corporations also want the final legislation to ensure that a commission can't mandate flows for highly skilled immigrant labor, said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel.

In 2000, after a lobbying push by technology companies, such as Microsoft, that are facing worker shortages, Congress approved lifting, for three years, the annual cap on H-1B visas for skilled temporary workers to 195,000 from 65,000. Today, it is back at 65,000.

"While it's very difficult to get changes through Congress, a commission wouldn't be any more responsive to business," said Shotwell, whose group includes Amazon.com and Exxon Mobil as members. "A commission could be even less responsive."

-- Bloomberg News

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